When Words and Things Lost Their Way, and Beer

One of the professors at my grad school, Roger Bohn writes an interesting blog called Art2Science where, among other things, he lays out how the medical industry could massively improve its safety record and outcomes by learning from the aviation industry. Early pilots, just like today’s doctors, depended extensively on their own judgement, and frequently made deadly errors, and standardized practices such as checklists led to a lot fewer crashes.

Lately, however, he’s run into some issues with his terminology. While the phrase “art to science” can generally capture the sense of replacing intuition and superstition with a general, comprehensive, and systematic understanding, it leave as lot of vagueness as to what the practitioners are specifically doing. We can talk about the art of aviation and the art or practicing medicine, but these don’t give us much insight into what pilots or doctors do on a day to day basis, or how they can improve. And while science probably has something to do with their improvement, we expect our pilots and doctors to be improving based on the lessons of science, not to actually become scientists. I do think he’s in for a world of hurt in trying to come up with precise terminology though, and here’s why:

The reason “art to science” works, is we all have a general understanding of how such a process proceeds. The tinkerer and the craftsman were put out of business by the scientist and the engineer (by way of the corporation and the modern state). The apprenticeship gives way to formal education with a standarized curriculum. Brewers were able to make beer before yeast was discovered, but their belief that fermentation was a blessing from God is now a bit laughable. And even if an alchemist were able to re-discover how to make porcelain, we’d be unlikely to to employ their services over the chemist’s, who could explain (after the fact) how this was accomplished. “Art to science” captures. in a general sense. the progress in each of these specific areas.

The problem with moving beyond the general understanding to more precise terminology is that many of the developments in the above areas corresponded with the undoing of our language. Well, not precisely, but they undid our confidence in a certain picture of how language worked, one in which words have fixed correspondence with specific things in the world outside our heads.

This picture of language is, according to Wittgenstein, best supplied by Saint Augustine learning a new language. Something is pointed out and a sound is uttered, and he learned to associate that sound with that thing. We can imagine pointing out the window of a moving car at a sheep, and saying “sheep,” and the child (in the back seat for safety reasons) repeating “sheep.” Later, we drive past a cow and the child says “sheep,” and we correct them, saying “cow,” but nonetheless congratulating ourselves on having such intelligent progeny that is able to identify a category of things which we call “four-legged animals,” a concept the kid will get to in due time.

The natural sciences made progress cleaning up mumbo-jumbo in terms of relating our words to things in the external world in certain domains. There was a time when whether a rabbit was a fish or not was a matter of theological and philosophical debate. Because the Church determined it was a fish, French monks went to extreme efforts to domesticate this excitable creature, as it could be consumed on Fridays. Natural philosophers in Prussia called the sun a kitchen furnace, the pyramids volcanoes, but all this ridiculousness was done away with by the late 19th Century. When Ishmael insists that a whale is a fish, there is a sense of poetic and tragic assertion, just as the hero in Notes from Underground rails against the immovable wall that is science.

But while they were able to kill off natural philosophy, the natural sciences and the scientific method more generally ran into their own wall when it came to clarifying and studying the problems of human social, ethical, and political life. What was “good,” or “true” was still largely a matter of interpretation, and as a result in these domains philosophy and an applied derivative, ideology (and increasingly propaganda), still held sway.

Developing an ideal language that would be free of the frustrating ambiguities of natural language was the last great project of philosophy and one at which the discipline failed (and consequently lost any claim of being a scientific discipline).

This picture of language is as pernicious as it is powerful and there’s a reason that one of the most important philosophical works of the last century was devoted to helping people see past it.

It’s power comes from its usefulness in scientific contexts. “What causes fermentation?” is a great scientific question, that can be answered with precision. We can not only talk about yeast, but types of yeast, and while there is plenty to be discussed, there’s certainly no need to consider our picture of language, much less God’s judgement on the brewer.

But once we move beyond a precise scientific domain, language quickly starts to lose its precision in the sense conveyed in the above picture. And we run the danger of interesting but endless philosophical rabbit holes (What is Truth? What is Freedom?) if we cannot accept a bit of imprecision and need to clarify based on audience and context. Dr. Bohn has proposed to replace the term “art” with “craft,” borrowing from lines of the progression outlined above, in which the craftsmen were put out of business by modern science and engineering. Along these lines we might think of a master brewer in medieval Germany as being a practitioner of a craft, one which he apprenticed under a previous master. But Anheuser-Busch wouldn’t trust any of these men to run any of its brewing facilities unless they went back to school for a rudimentary education in brewing science.

At the same time, however, craft brewing has got Anheuser-Busch scared and defensive and is putting the modern German beer industry (finally) on notice. Does this mean that science is giving way to craft? Well, not exactly, craft here has more to do with the sense of small scale/artisan/high quality (though it doesn’t necessarily mean any of those either). Craft has simply acquired a new meaning, which is related, but different to its old meaning. Not a problem, we give new things the names of old things all the time,

But we can see the problem for Dr. Bohn, this new meaning for craft already presents potential for confusion. Craft is at the same time what is out of date and what is cutting edge. This is not insurmountable perhaps, but  enough to undermine precision. And finding a precise term for better, more scientific management may prove even more difficult.

The rise of the sciences has not meant the end of confusion. One of the most dangerous places to be is between people with precise (but varying) terminologies and the common uses of language, “babbling equilibriums” (to use Elinor Ostrom’s terminology) are a common occurrence.

Republican Smartness Stratego: Who Trumps Trump?

“I went to the Wharton School of Business. I’m, like, a really smart person.” -Donald Trump

So I’ve been trying to figure out how I measure up to the Republican front runner in terms of intelligence. I mean, I didn’t go to the Wharton School, because I didn’t study business, but I did go to UC Berkeley for undergrad, so that’s got to count for something, right? And from the few episodes of The Apprentice I watched, I gotta say his business acumen didn’t seem all that great, mostly seemed to fire whoever took responsibility for their actions.

“If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” you might ask me. And then maybe I’d point out that I’m not interested in money and that I could make money if I wanted to and bring up the story about the Greek philosopher guy who rented all the olive presses just before a good harvest he predicted ’cause he was really smart and thus proved that smart people can make money if they want to.

“Yeah, idiot snot lefty intellectuals like you got Obama elected and are ruining America. If we’d put Carly or the Donald in charge we’d have some real economic recovery!” you would reply right before you knocked me out cold with Jack Welch’s biography.

If I were still conscious I would have noted that Mr. Trump is #405 on Forbes list. And #1 on the list is Bill Gates. And that guy dropped out of college!

This is getting hard. So maybe let’s stick to rating the Republican candidates. We’ve got enough of ’em we could populate an entire Stratego set and send into battle against the clearly underpopulated Democrats! We just have to work how to rank ’em. If we’re going to go with ranking in terms of intellect, as the Donald does, here’s what I got:

#1  Carson (the marshal) -freakin’ neurosurgeon

#2 Cruz (the general) -he knows he’s not going to win, but will get a load of publicity in the effort.

#3 Bush (the colonel) – He’s the smart brother.

#4 Rubio (major) – Smart enough to know being the smart brother ain’t enough to wrap this one up.

#5 Fiorina (captain) – Got fired and got $21 million. She ain’t stupid!

#6 Paul (lieutenant)- Keeping the family biz alive with a no-hope run.

#7 Huckabee (sergeant)- This is how you sell a book these days!

#8 Kasich (the miner)- the only one who had a comment that defused Trump during the Fox news debate.

#9 Graham, Santorum, Perry…….. (the scouts) – cannon fodder.

#The Bomb- Trump! (But for which side?)

Illustrating With Keynote

Graphic Test- Naturally Driven Change

A natural driver of hydrological change.

 

 

I’ve been looking into visual ways to communicate my work and have been playing a bit in Apple’s Keynote which has an easy to use and attractive set of shapes and colors. I’m kinda tickled with the result of my test and plan to work with Keynote a bit more. But I would certainly like to hear of any other cheap and easy to use illustration packages that are out there.

The Lab and the Field, and the Temptation of Rigor

“Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge.” -F.A. Hayek, 1945

 

As it was in 1945 it is today. There is the sense that if you can’t say something scientifically, you haven’t said it properly. And, more dangerously, there is a sense that better science requires more rigor and more formalization. The result is general confusion, and often bad science, as we attempt to talk about what cannot be said, or should not be said scientifically, in scientific (and more rigorous) terms. This sense has led to a butchery of many humanities departments, a good deal of blood-letting in the social sciences, and the emergence of weird quasi-disciplines such as “management-science” (shudder).

I too am sometimes tempted by rigor to the detriment of other considerations, and I wish to explore the twilight areas between scientific knowledge and straight-up knowledge in a series of blog posts. I am going to start with a couple of my favorite disciplines, philosophy and political science, and discuss the damage that the need to state all knowledge in scientific terms, and to go all too far down the road of rigor and formalization can cause.

With philosophy I couldn’t even start in academia. My love of the subject from high school was quickly quashed by two dreadfully comitted professors (one a very old Kantian, the other  fearfully into C.I. Lewis). It took me almost a decade to recover and rediscover the discipline. I did so outside the academic, by listening to podcasts by Hubert Dreyfus while working a dead-end job, and through the work of Robert Frodeman around interdisciplinary research.

Dreyfus is a wonderful and perceptive humanist, and have no worries, he will be well covered in further posts. Frodeman is lesser known, but also highly significant, and his term “field philosophy,” is a nice starting place for reclaiming the aforementioned, and other disciplines lost to the perils of misplaced scientific rigor. He explains the term briefly here:

Another group of philosophers, myself included, is experimenting with an approach we call “field philosophy.” Field philosophy plays on the difference between lab science and field science. Field scientists, such as geologists and anthropologists, cannot control conditions as a chemist or physicist can in the lab. Each rock outcrop or social group is radically individual in nature. Instead of making law-like generalizations, field scientists draw analogies from one site to another, with the aim of telling the geological history of a particular location or the story of a particular people.

 

“Getting out into the field” means leaving the book-lined study to work with scientists, engineers and decision makers on specific social challenges. Rather than going into the public square in order to collect data for understanding traditional philosophic problems like the old chestnut of “free will,” as experimental philosophers do, field philosophers start out in the world. Rather than seeking to identify general philosophic principles, they begin with the problems of non-philosophers, drawing out specific, underappreciated, philosophic dimensions of societal problems.

 

And there is a lesson that the political science discipline could take from the distinction between lab and field work. When I was at U.C. San Diego I was incredibly surprised by how the political science PhD students were completely unrecognizable from the feisty undergrads and Capitol Hill staffers I had previously had the pleasure to study and work with.

This new breed of political scientists to the one had a mathematical model from which they worked. And unless you wanted to talk econometrics (an interesting subject in its own right, I’ll give you) you really couldn’t engage them. A curiousity in the novel, the interesting, and what happened out there in the real world, the “field” just wasn’t there. While the previous political types I had met, scientific or not, would love to get into the specifics, or more likely a debate, about a  theory, or policy, or campaign, this breed couldn’t even be bothered to talk about what it was like to work among the Congressmen whose votes they were aggregating and analyzing.

Those of us looking for political science solutions around specific environmental problems, should also consider the significance field work. “Governance” puts a charmingly technical and abstract common term on a wide set of of problems. But just as the geological context of the problem may be “radically individual” in nature and thus only interpretable comparatively, so may the political or “governance” problem. And particularly when these political and geological (and biological and economic) problems are linked together, understanding of the problem(s) and solution(s) must start out in the field, even at the sacrifice of rigor and formalization.

 

 

On the theme of police, and not trusting numbers to tell us the full story, The Wire, Episode 15.

Col. Rawls covering his backside

M.S.P. COLONEL: Bill, I’m not arguing that the jurisdiction’s not technically ours. Patapsco’s definitely Port Authority property and the port police have the jurisdiction. That’s not in dispute here.
RAWLS: Good.
M.S.P. COLONEL: But they’re not equipped for a death investigation. I mean, you dump 13 bodies on them, you’re dumping them on us. M.S.P. is gonna have to pick up that slack, overburdened as we are.
RAWLS: Robbie, I have fought and scratched and clawed for four months to get my clearance rate up above 50%, and right now, it stands at exactly 51.6%. Do you happen to know what my clearance rate will be if I take 13 “whodunits” off your hands? 39.4%.
M.S.P. COLONEL: Bill, like I told you–
RAWLS: Hey, we did not get to be colonels by being complete fucking idiots, right? (Laughing) Robbie, you poor bastard, you look like you need a cup of coffee

The Beginning of an Excellent Adventure

Remember, “Be excellent to each other.”

Well, the clock has almost run out on my four and a half year stint with Uncle Sam. It has been quite a ride. I started working at EPA as a freshly minted graduate-fellow with some political experience and plucky ideas about economics. Our politics were divisive and the economy was going into the tank.

Sadly my arrival in DC didn’t fix our politics, but the economy is slightly better so I guess I didn’t kill too many jobs in my tenure.

Sorry, that was really negative, and you all have enough on your plate. Let me turn that around. Perhaps I’m trying to say, despite certain frustrations, my time at EPA has been amazing. The staff in the Office of Water include some of the smartest, most dedicated people I have ever met. From them I have learned more about stormwater and our regulatory program than I knew was possible about any subject area. Most impressively, I can now list myself as tri-lingual: English, German, and water quality (WQ) acronyms.

There was a time I thought I would never leave. Unfortunately I have a short attention span (four and a half years being short in government time) and, very fortunately, I have a European wife.

So I’m off. Equipped with the discipline and subject area background I have acquired from my EPA experience, I will spend next year and a half learning German and searching for solutions for our ailing water infrastructure systems. A truly unbelievable opportunity made possible by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s German Chancellor Fellowship and the Ecologic Institut EU.

I’ve started this blog to try to take some of you along on this adventure. It will be part travel log, part documentary of my fellowship, and part forum for some of my zany ideas. I’m going to try to keep it as fun as possible but there is a serious thread running underneath. Public health, the environment, and the financial sustainability of many communities are closely linked to our water infrastructure challenges. I fervently believe that applying informed social science to these problems can help our local, and perhaps even our national, politics and policies trend toward solutions. Therefore, I hope you’ll help me make the best of this opportunity and ask me to explain when I’m unclear and redact when I’m just plain wrong. I’ll have no idea how silly my ideas are if you don’t tell me.

Thank you, and please stay in touch.

Christopher Moore (not the other one)